The loss of someone close feels like it is the end of the world. Your world, or your perception of it as it used to be. Reality for the bereaved is predominantly stuck in the past, with the occasional forays into the future. The present seems too hard to contemplate; too painful to remain there for long. But the only way to get through these terribly sad times is to find a way to remain in the present for longer periods, despite the anguish. I remember looking at old family photos when I lost my father and for those moments I was sent back to the times when he was still alive in the physical world, something I didn’t want to confront at first. With the sudden cessation of his presence, I needed to reinforce the belief that he did exist. For the journey ahead I had to adapt to a world where he was not a member of anymore, and accept that from now on he can only exist within me.
But how do we find the strength to carry on? To indulge ourselves with friends and family again with the world a different one than it used to be. Time does heal most people as the emotional wounds of grief are eventually covered up by the very environment that we now interact without the deceased in it. We learn to live again, rebooted to function in the world because we have to. People may depend on us and we have to carry on. It’s a transition from one reality to another with which we get used to, but the journey there must be one of pain and suffering. It is in the suffering that we have to find a new meaning for us, a new purposeful goal to aim for.
I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s search for Meaning’ lately and it is truly an inspirational piece of work written by a man who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. He argued that if he had believed that life had no purpose or meaning he would not have survived. He had drafted a psychological manuscript just before he was sent to the infamous concentration camp and it was subsequently lost never to be recovered. The prospect of rewriting it when he got out gave him a purpose to survive. What also helped was his belief that his wife would be waiting for him when he got home, even though he knew that she too was held at Auschwitz, kept apart at the women’s barracks. Not all could achieve this and he witness many who literally lost the will to live. It must have taken great mental strength to overcome considering that most of the Jewish population in Europe were being sent to camps where the probability of non-survival was extremely high. He contemplated the reality to some that there would be no-one to come home to after mentally preparing such an event countless times.
“Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist any more! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for! Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which he had seen for years in his mind, and only his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he has longed to do in thousands of dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.”
Viktor Frankl (1992)
He also highlighted the dangers inherent in a long confinement where the prisoner has no knowledge of when he will be released. Not knowing how long the incarceration would be prevents some from forming a goal for the future. The prisoners in Auschwitz and other death camps had no idea how long the war in Europe would last, and whether they would still be alive when that eventuality came. Death seemed to be the only outcome in such barbaric existence, but Frankl believed that man could still find meaning in such conditions. Most thought that meaning had been taken away from them but they failed to realise that meaning changes constantly. In Auschwitz they had to rethink and for different meanings for themselves, even when death was near. Frankl and others in the camp were intelligent enough to educate their fellow prisoners with techniques for survival and for those which helped cope with the suffering that ensued.
In a concentration camp situation, time seemed to be experienced differently. Many related the fact that a day seem to last longer than a week. There was so much repetition in the camp, work, fatigue and stress all played a part in making time seem endless.
These themes struck a chord with me about bereavement. I had often experienced distortions in time soon after the death of my father. In the week before the funeral the days seem to pass so slowly, which made that particular week seem like about two weeks. My father passed nearly five years ago and strangely, perhaps paradoxically, that time has flown by. But I’m really interested in how meaning can be thought of as a way of changing a mind state that appears to be lost and unrecoverable by a bereavement, to a perception of a future with a possibility of hope and fulfillment.
“This feeling of lifelessness was intensified by other causes in time, it was the limitlessness of the term of imprisonment which was most acutely felt; in space, the narrow limits of the prison. Anything outside the barbed wire became remote – out of reach and, in a way, unreal. The events and the people outside, all the normal life there, had a ghostly aspect for the prisoner. The outside life, that is, as much as he could see it, appeared to him almost as it might have to a dead man who looked at it from another world.”
Viktor Frankl (1992)
Doesn’t this sound like grief for a loved one to you? I often feel that clients perceive themselves as being trapped in a place where they cannot get out with no idea how long this grief period will last.
I had a client not so long ago, I’ll call her Jane though that is not her real name, who came to me with in severe grief over a much loved husband. The bereavement was fairly recent so her despair, anguish and hopelessness was raw and very prevailing. She was convinced that life would never be the same for her and indeed she was preparing to live the rest of her life dominated by the grief she was experiencing at this time, which was imprisoning her. I was as if she was looking from inside a confined space (her life with her husband was her world) and unable to integrate comfortably with others no matter how hard she tried. Week after week she sobbed for the life she had as part of a devoted and loving couple which she knew she could never reclaim or experience ever again. It was this particular reality that was plunging her into a deep pit of despair, and she could only forecast a continuation of this to the end of her days. She desperately wanted to know how long this period of black despair was going to last, a question I had no answer for her.
Jane’s meaning for existence centred on her life as a wife and as a loving partner to her husband. She cherished his existence as much as she did her own, if not more. Her self-esteem was on the low side and she had a history of pleasing others, sometimes on the verge of being taken advantage of. When her husband passed, she lost her only reason to live and indeed had thoughts of ending her life at her most darkest times. At this point, I could see that she was not in a position to be focusing on any future goals. She was still in the process of dealing with her loss, being still emotionally interconnected to her husband. We talked about the despair that descended on her during the previous week; the intensity of her emotions created a vivid picture of uncontrolled, unrelenting suffering. It wasn’t until after six months of counselling that she entered into a realm in her grief time that she began to see any benefits for the future.
“Meaning making is an important process for the grieving deaths that tend to challenge beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. Death can shatter the core of one’s life purposes, and it is important to discover and invent new meaning in the face of loss (Attig, 1996).
As it turned out, Jane had already found a way to redirect her to a new meaning for her life before she started counselling. Prior to our first session, she had joined an internet bereavement site which encouraged sharing grief experiences and regular meetings with other members. As counselling continued she gradually became more involved with other members and in time was helping others with their grief.
She had found another meaning for her existence, contributing on forums and even attending a funeral with one of the site’s members. She had a found a reason for her existence; to help others get through what she had experienced. Her self-esteem seemed to have got better because she started to make decisions for herself. She now had a purpose, a task to accomplish with her life, and the understanding of her own suffering helped to assist others.
Throughout our sessions there was two redeemable features about Jane that gave me the confidence that she would get through her grief; her fortitude and determination. She never once looked like giving up even in the times when she was at her lowest. She fought through the suffering and perhaps she eventually realised that the suffering was unavoidable and necessary. As Nietzsche said,
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.
Viktor Frankl was in a unique position to ultimately pass on a fundamental insight into the strength of the human spirit, the very limits of emotional endurance. By some sheer luck and fortuitous situations he survived where it seemed impossible to, and passed on such a valuable percipience on existential psychology. Many have stated that the book is one of the most influential and life-changing ever written and I can understand why. His perceptions in the nature of suffering seems to lie in Buddhist philosophy where suffering is an unavoidable element of existence.
“Whoever we are, we cannot avoid painful experiences. We become sick, we get disappointed, and we lose people we love. We do not get what we want, and we die. This was the Buddha’s first understanding. More than this, though, these things are not shameful. They are inevitable parts of life and they are noble.”
In bereavement we are forced into a suffering with which we need to cope and find a way to carry on fulfilling our lives.
Frankl’s ideas on meaning was turned into a psychotherapeutic approach which he termed logotherapy, a method dedicated to help people find meaning in their lives. What I like about logotherapy is that it comprises the humanistic doctrine of looking at the client’s experience rather than the direct, therapist led approach favoured by the psychoanalytic approach. If needed Frankl utilised the client’s established belief systems, religion for instance, as a way to find a way to help.
I would highly recommend reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
Frankl, Viktor E., “Man’s Search For Meaning”, (1992 – originally published 1959).
Worden, J. William, “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy”, (2009, 4th Edition).
Brazier, Caroline, “Buddhist Psychology”, (2003).